Two of the NBA’s elite teams meet as the Boston Celtics host the Toronto Raptors in what could be a preview of the Eastern Conference finals, live on Sky Sports USA on Thursday morning at 1am.
The NBA-leading Raptors (33-12) appear to have rediscovered something near their best form after a testing December.
They lost seven of their 15 games during the final month of 2018 as injuries and general fatigue appeared to take their toll, but Toronto are now back on a five-match winning streak.
Live NBA: Toronto @ Boston
The return of Kyle Lowry – in the second game of that streak – has no doubt helped, with the All-Star point guard’s play-making ability relieving some of the strain on Kawhi Leonard.
Just when the Celtics (25-18) appeared to be rolling after four straight home victories, three unexpected road losses have seen the same doubts that have plagued their season to this point return.
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Coach Brad Stevens’ rotations are under scrutiny once more, while a lack of team chemistry appears to be a continuing theme when the Celtics lose.
With the season-series between the teams tied at 1-1, the Celtics will surely be motivated by the opportunity to strike a mental blow to a likely playoff opponent.
Key battle: Pascal Siakam vs Marcus Morris
Nobody has ever questioned the effort of this energetic pair of power forwards, but both have quietly taken their productivity to new levels this season.
Siakam has taken a huge leap during the first half of his third NBA campaign, establishing himself as a crucial cog for the Raptors and playing his way to contention for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Pascal Siakam and Marcus Morris are sure to engage in a high-energy battle at power forward
The 24-year-old Cameroonian’s points average has more than doubled from last season, while he’s also shooting with greater accuracy from all parts of the court.
Few considered Morris as a starter for the talent-laden Celtics at the beginning of the season, but the veteran’s consistency and impact from the bench earned him a promotion.
Morris is having by far the best season of his career from behind the three-point line, shooting 44.8 per cent from beyond the arc, while averaging a career-best 15.4 points per game.
Last time out
Highlights of the Toronto Raptors’ visit to the Washington Wizards in week 13 of the NBA.
Highlights of the Boston Celtics’ trip to the Brooklyn Nets in Week 14 of the NBA.
38.9 – The Toronto Raptors shooting percentage from three-point range during their last five games has been a crucial component in putting together a winning streak. That mark is more than four per cent up on their season average, which should have their rivals concerned.
One to watch (Raptors): Kawhi Leonard
Leonard's consistency has helped the Raptors to the top of the NBA standings
Even during the Raptors’ difficult December, Leonard continued to justify the franchise’s decision to gamble on acquiring him last summer.
While James Harden wows with high-volume scoring and Giannis Antetokounmpo with ferocious dunks, Leonard is holding his place in the MVP race by leading his team to victories.
Furthermore, the former San Antonio Spur has scored more than 40 points twice in his last six games, suggesting there could be an even higher level of performance to come from him in 2019.
One to watch: (Celtics) Kyrie Irving
Irving has cut a frustrated figure for the Boston Celtics at times this season
Kyrie Irving can always be relied upon for producing highlight plays on the court, but perhaps worryingly for the Celtics, the All-Star point guard is making a habit of creating headlines in other ways this season.
The latest came at the end of a defeat to the Orlando Magic on Saturday, as Irving expressed frustration first with coach Stevens’ call for the final the play of the game, and then teammate Gordon Hayward’s execution of it.
After causing something of a scene in the Boston locker room after the game, Irving then – not for the first time this season – criticised some of his younger teammates.
The 2016 NBA champion missed Monday’s defeat at the Nets and will certainly have a point to prove upon his return.
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